Kabul: At a news conference in Kabul last week, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid made the case that today’s Taliban was no longer the group the world remembers from the last time it came to power nationally.
“Nobody will be harmed in Afghanistan,” he said. “Of course, there is a huge difference between us now and 20 years ago.”
Observers were quick to seize on signs of compromise and divergence from the hardline stance that has marked Taliban attitudes regarding the role of women and girls: Female journalists returned to the screen the day after Kabul’s fall, even interviewing a Taliban official on live television. The Taliban’s political office spokesman tweeted a video of a Taliban-aligned scholar advising female hospital staffers to continue their work.
These moments would have been difficult to imagine during the Taliban’s previous rule over the country, which lasted from 1996 until the 2001 invasion by US-led forces.
But this wasn’t the first time the Taliban tried to present a reassuring face. Some of the official assurances that accompanied the group’s ascension in 1996 struck a similar tone.
On September 27, 1996, Taliban forces captured Kabul overnight, flooding in from all directions after a 15-day sweep of the country. (In August 2021, it would take 10 days.) The insurgent group was met little resistance from government troops. “The apparent ease of the Taliban’s military victory has baffled many observers here,” The Washington Post’s Kenneth J. Cooper wrote on October 6, 1996.
At that time, the Taliban was “little-known” in the United States, according to a September 28, 1996, Post headline. Geopolitically, the nation had “dropped off” Washington’s radar.
“We will try our best so that all rules and regulations of Islam are implemented on the ground,” announced Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the Taliban’s acting deputy foreign minister, in 1996. “But so far as we are able, we want to establish an Islamic government which will not be opposed to the modern world.” Today, Stanikzai serves as the head of the Taliban’s political office.
Infighting and bloodshed
The Taliban preached the rule of law and the return of order - even blaring promises of peace over crackling loudspeakers. Afghans were fed up with years of factional infighting and bloodshed in the nation’s civil war amid the crumbling of the Soviet-installed communist government. Through messaging, Taliban leadership positioned themselves “not only as defenders of Islam but as saviours of Afghanistan,” Cooper wrote on October 6, 1996.
Around 250,000 Kabul residents - primarily the educated and wealthy - fled to the country’s northern territories and to Pakistan the week of the takeover. But Taliban leader Mohammad Omar urged fearful Kabul residents to stay, suggesting they were safer with militiamen patrolling the streets.
Immediately, a Taliban commander named Musa declared an amnesty for all government officers and soldiers who surrendered: “Taliban will not take revenge. We have no personal rancor. If the people find someone responsible for crimes in the past, we will judge him according to Islamic law.”
More than two decades later, on August 17, 2021, the Taliban would again announce a general “amnesty” for “compatriots” who had previously served as interpreters or in military and civilian sectors. “We don’t want to take revenge on anyone,” Mujahid said. “Nobody is going to knock on their door to inspect them.”
The next day, a confidential threat assessment for the United Nations stated that the Taliban was stepping up its hunt - going house to house, setting up checkpoints, and threatening the relatives of Afghan security officials, as well as US and Nato collaborators.
Two decades ago, despite messaging suggesting otherwise, early revenge was on full display, much more so than today.
20-foot traffic-control platform
In the hours after the group took power in 1996, former president Najibullah’s bloated and beaten body dangled, beside his brother’s scarred corpse, from a noose hung from a 20-foot traffic-control platform, Kathy Gannon reported for The Post.
This time around, the president, Ashraf Ghani, fled. “Had I stayed there, an elected president of Afghanistan would have been hanged again right before the Afghans’ own eyes,” Ghani said later in a Facebook video.
In 1996, within days, the Taliban broke from its assurances. Taliban leaders vowed to cut off thieves’ hands and feet - and they did. Two women wearing clothing that covered all but their eyes were walking down a busy shopping street when Taliban militia men jumped out of a utility vehicle and beat the women with a car radio antenna, The Post reported on October 3, 1996. “Why? Why, my brother?” one of the women, carrying a baby, screamed.
The next day, militiamen caught two men stealing candy. As punishment, they “blackened the culprits’ faces with smoke, stuck Afghan currency in their ears and noses and paraded them around the city in the back of a pickup truck,” Cooper wrote.
“For the women of Kabul, it has been a week of fear and virtual imprisonment,” Cooper wrote that October 7. The Taliban had shuttered all girls’ schools. Squads of “morality police” from the Promotion of Virtue and Elimination of Vice ministry carried out draconian punishments to enforce modesty codes on beards too thin or ankles that showed.
“There is no problem for any Afghan living freely in our areas,” Cooper quoted then-Taliban Deputy Foreign Minister Stanikzai as saying.
Later, the fundamentalist government would ban cassette tapes and live music - and clapping after soccer goals, as William Shawcross wrote for The Post in November 1997.
“Women, say the Taliban, ‘must walk softly at all times,’” Shawcross wrote.
Schools for girls
Taliban leaders said at an October 1, 1996, news conference that restrictions on women and girls would remain only until rules could be devised permitting their employment and education in a manner consistent with Islam. One spokesman said that could “’take some time,’ however,” Cooper reported on October 3 of that year.
This indeed took some time. Schools for girls opened again only after US-led forces invaded and the Taliban fell in 2001.
Within a month after the 1996 takeover, the Taliban’s strict fundamentalism had grown widely unpopular. “The Taliban are not seen as they were in the beginning. They were welcome,” Mohammed Ghaus, then the acting foreign minister, said on October 19, 1996. “(Now) they have lost full support of the people. The people of Afghanistan realise the Taliban cannot administer the country.”
“Ever since beginning its armed campaign to wrest control of Afghanistan, the Taliban has been promising that after it had the once-chaotic and lawless country in its grip, it would ease its severe restrictions,” The Post’s Pamela Constable wrote in September 1998. “Instead ... the crackdown has intensified.”
For now, the future of life under the Taliban remains difficult to predict. But many cling to what hope they find that a more liberal way of life might persist, at least in some regards.
UNICEF Afghanistan representative Herv Ludovic De Lys in an August 18 statement pointed out an “encouraging sign”: Schools have opened for children, including girls, in Herat and Marouf.
But some won’t take the Taliban’s word just yet.
“I really can go crazy when I find these people who are trying to convince themselves that the Taliban has changed and they keep their promises and they go aligned with their political statements,” Hosna Jalil, who was 9 when the Taliban fell in 2001, told The Post.
Jalil remembers years of brutality, beatings, humiliation and living in fear as she went to a mosque. Years later, she became the first woman elevated to a senior Interior Ministry post in Afghanistan.
“For me, as an Afghan, if I lived under the regime, if I’ve spent my childhood under their regime, I struggled, I fought with them for the last 20 years for a great cause,” she said. “I fought for the future of our little girls and boys. I’m telling you, they have not changed.”
Omar Sadr, a political scientist at the American University of Afghanistan, told The Post that “observing (the Taliban) from 1996 to now, they’re a hypocrite movement - hypocrite in the sense that their statements do not match their deeds and their actions.”